The art of photography has been shaped by some incredible technical trends over the last few decades, and it seems like the pace of change is ever-accelerating. In this article, I wanted to take a look back at some of the biggest advances and game-changers in modern photography.
Table of Contents
Film to Digital Transition
Arguably the single biggest change in photography since the invention of photography was the shift from film to digital. This transition saw the fall of massive, household names like Kodak, and the rise of new companies and industries. There are countless interesting stories from the early days of this transition, including the fact that Kodak actually developed the first digital camera, but executives didn’t see how it would be important. No one is thinking that now.
Part of the importance of this shift is that digital photography has drastically changed the way that new photographers learned the techniques and secrets of photography. Being able to shoot and instantly see the results, even on the shockingly poor rear LCDs of the time, made it possible to practice and get immediate feedback on your techniques. It also reduced the cost-per-photo to effectively zero. I know how many photos I took as an early digital photographer that I instantly deleted – this would have been a very expensive method of learning on film!
A related shift is that digital post-production techniques gave rise to entirely new types of photos that would have been exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to capture on film. Even amateur photographers can do things like focus stacking, Milky Way image blending, and HDR photography in just a few minutes of effort today. It has radically changed the types of subjects that are easy to photograph, or even possible to photograph at all.
Moving to digital also changed the game in the way that images are displayed. Among consumers, physical prints are now a rare way to see photos. Most images now live entirely online, whether in social media posts or simply on your home computer. This particular development is probably bad for the art of photography, but even so, it’s been a major consequence of the film-to-digital transition. That really was the seismic event in photographic history.
Sensor Technology Developments
Despite how revolutionary digital imaging was, the actual results weren’t so amazing at first. Early digital cameras, while offering a number of conveniences, lagged their celluloid cousins in image quality. For example, Nikon’s D1, which was heralded as a major milestone in digital camera development, only had a 2.7MP, APS-C sensor. No wonder Koda’s executives dismissed digital at first!
It would be a long process before digital caught up to film across various metrics: resolution, dynamic range, sensitivity, color, and even sensor size. These days, however, there’s little argument to be made for the superiority of film over digital, other than rare cases of using complex large format film. Modern digital cameras can do multi-shot panoramas for hundreds of megapixels of resolution, 50MP bursts at 30fps, ramp the ISO to 32,000 or greater, and produce 14+ stops of dynamic range – far, far better than any 35mm film camera ever made.
Even with all those capabilities, the march of technology continues. Newer sensors will inevitably feature higher resolution and better performance, and the last few weaknesses of digital capture devices will soon being addressed with upcoming tech like global shutters.
Looking back, it’s tough to identify any singular camera sensor that revolutionized things. Instead, the continual progress moved on, sometimes fast and sometimes slow. In my mind, the Nikon D3 was a significant advancement, with the amazing low light capability and Nikon’s first full-frame sensor, although that may be a bit of brand bias. I have similar warm feelings towards the Nikon D800, with the impressive resolution of 36MP paired with excellent dynamic range, starting a trend that has continued to this day.
Vibration Reduction/Image Stabilization
Image stabilization is another area where continual improvements have added up to some really transformative technologies. Early VR/IS lenses were already useful – Canon’s early implementation offered 2 stops of benefit – but nothing like what we see today. Subsequent developments gradually increased the benefits of image stabilization, and today, the best methods (which leverage both in-lens and sensor-based stabilization) now yield up to 8 stops of reduction.
Image stabilization isn’t perfect, since it doesn’t cancel out subject motion, and even now isn’t available across all bodies or lenses. When it’s available, however, it really broadens the types of subjects that can be photographed handheld. One of my first outings with my Nikon Z7 was on a walk through a botanical garden after dark, photographing some new lighting installations they had. Using a tripod wasn’t feasible, and the dim light levels meant I was stretching my exposures even with a f/1.4 lens. However, I was amazed by just how sharp the images were, with exposures of 1 second and even longer. That was a moment when I felt the gradual revolution in stabilization tech had really left a mark.
Image stabilization also is just nice to use when shooting with telephoto lenses. With VR on, there’s no jumpy viewfinder waving around with your movement, but instead a calm floating view of your subject. Sport/wildlife photography has probably undergone more changes and improvements than any other genre over the last few decades, and stabilization is part of that. Imagine photographing a distant bird with low-sensitivity 35mm film and a non-stabilized, perhaps even manual focus, lens. We are definitely spoiled these days!
Vibration reduction tech earned a spot in this article because it combines everything good about technology: an interesting technical implementation, concrete benefits, and a great development arc over time.
Computer-Aided Lens Designs
The change in how lenses are developed is really two advancements in one. The first is the shift to computer-aided lens design, which allowed for more complex optical formulas and faster development. That story has been going on for at least 30 years, yielding sharper lenses that cover a wider range at a lower cost. It’s also another story of continual, gradual improvements yielding a better product. A clear example of this is to look at the state-of-the-art for wide angle lenses.
In 1976, Nikon introduced the 13mm f/5.6. This lens leveraged all the latest technology: multilayer coatings, close focus correction, and a massive 115mm element. It was unique and wildly expensive, and it has remained so, with samples even today going for tens of thousands of dollars.
In recent years, if you wanted to go ultra-wide, you no longer needed a mortgage. Instead, well-behaved 12mm and 14mm lenses became available for a few hundred dollars. Then, things got wider and wider, with Laowa’s 9mm f/5.6 now holding the “widest rectilinear” crown, all for about $600. The developments even expanded to the addition of zooms and faster apertures, showing up in lenses like Canon’s 11-24mm, Sony’s 12-24mm f/2.8, and the 14mm f/1.4 Sigma recently released. Almost all of these lenses would compare very favorably against that 13mm f/5.6 Nikon lens head-to-head, yet they are a tiny fraction of the cost (and size).
It’s clear that lens design and manufacturing has drastically changed what’s possible, and at what price. That, in turn, has made it possible for more photographers to capture a broader range of subjects and really implement their creativity to the fullest. Of course, these developments not limited to just ultra-wide lenses. Across the lineup, there are faster apertures, broader zoom ranges, and new combinations of specs that just weren’t possible before.
The other aspect of this development is the increased reliance on the nature of digital photography to correct for lens deficiencies. While this hasn’t been formally announced as a policy, it’s become apparent that more lens designs are leaning into the trade-offs that digital imaging has made possible. Consider distortion, for example: this optical flaw was almost impossible to correct on film, so low-distortion lenses were highly coveted. For digital, it’s not a problem at all. If a lens design has heavy distortion uncorrected, like Sony’s 20-70mm, it’s still a feasible lens design thanks to how easily distortion can be corrected in post.
This reliance on digital corrections isn’t without sacrifices. Heavy distortion correction can lead to stretched/unsharp corners, and vignetting correction can reveal some noise in the corners. But it affords lens designers much more flexibility anyway. They can focus on things like sharpness, maximum aperture, and focal length with more flexibility than they could before. Gone are some of the traditional constraints on what optical flaws are “permanent” parts of a photo. I’d consider that revolutionary in its own right.
Machine-Learning and Artificial Intelligence
All these previous advancements are retrospective. Although most of them are still shaping the art of photography, their impact is already made clear. This next one is a bit more forward-looking: the potential of machine learning and artificial intelligence on photography.
Like some of the previous examples I gave, this advancement has some positive and some negative effects. On the positive side, the potential of machine-learning tools was apparent to me when I first used Generative Fill – the tech felt completely transformative. Even if you’re just using it as a glorified cloning tool, the results are incredible. Along similar lines are the better noise reduction, sharpening, and upsampling tools that we’ve seen in recent years.
Things change a bit when you consider the possibilities of more drastic applications of the new technology. Adding entirely new elements to a scene is easier than ever, and there’s starting to be a radical realignment around just what constitutes a photo versus digital art.
The results are already being felt – Spencer recently discussed how a real, AI-free photo being disqualified from a competition because it “felt” like artificial intelligence to the judges. It’s unclear how all these new developments are going to affect photography as an art, as an industry, and as a hobby, but it is clear that photography may look wildly different 10 years from now as a result. Maybe it will, ironically, have the effect of returning people to film or older digital cameras – or give physical prints a bit of a resurgence – because they feel more “real.” And then the cycle begins again.
Do you think I missed any big advancements? If you were around for the film-to-digital transition, what did it look like for you? Let me know in the comments below!